Media interest towards climate change swelled in the run-up to COP21, but after the event, coverage was neither sustained nor effective in mobilizing people. Why does climate reporting fall short of achieving the effects required by the seriousness of the issue? Four key reasons might explain this: the structure of media organizations favors regular beats and news that sell over climate related issues, there is a lack of journalists trained on the issue, funding for climate reporting is inadequate, and multi-sensory stories accessible to non-expert audiences are difficult to produce. However, global collaboration around climate reporting has already given birth to remarkable projects, and offers great hope for the future.
The force unleashed by super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has been described as comparable to that of an atomic bomb. The statement should not be discarded as pure rhetorical excess. Although typhoons leave no lasting radiation behind, they do release energy that is sometimes equivalent to multiple nuclear explosions.
The devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan confirmed this. It exploded on the city of Tacloban, where storm surges claimed the lives of thousands of people. Journalists like myself sent to survey the aftermath of the typhoon considered it a war zone. Villages were reduced to rubble. Bodies littered the streets. The living had nowhere to go.
It was there that I realized the threat of climate change was real. Climate change is not just a slow rise of the average temperature, resulting in more balmy nights and sweatier days: it brings extreme material destruction and human suffering in its wake.
Two years later, I found myself in Paris, covering the climate negotiations.
With me were 3,000 other journalists, more than three times the number present in Lima for the Conference of the Parties (COP) the year before.
Media interest in climate change swelled in the run-up to COP21 in France. But once the show was over, it was business as usual for many of these reporters. Despite the interest drummed up by the high-profile event, media coverage was neither sustained nor effective in mobilizing people, at least according to a paper published last year by the Nature Climate Change journal.
Climate reporting falls very short of achieving the effects required by the seriousness of the issue. Four key reasons explain why this is the case.
First, inadequate coverage of climate change may be traced to the structure of media organizations. Many of them follow old beat systems, whereby each journalist specializes on just one core topic or location. Unlike politics or business, climate change is not a regular beat. There are no daily events that help generate news about it. Reporters get caught up in the daily grind of breaking news, and have little time to work on extensive stories about climate change. Meanwhile, in the context of commercial competition between media outlets, editors are made to focus on news that sell – consumer stories, political controversy, business or sports.
Second, in cases when media organizations are interested in regularly covering climate change, it takes a while to find the right person. Climate reporting is not offered as an elective in most journalism schools. Journalists often learn on their own through self-directed, online courses like that of Poynter’s News University or by applying for fellowships abroad.
Third, with media organizations unable to fund climate-related investigations or even spare journalists to focus on in-depth stories, reporters who want to pursue the topic of climate change need to seek institutions and networks who are willing to foot the bill. Some initiatives do exist, but their numbers are extremely limited.
Fourth, it is difficult to produce reports on climate change that fully engage the audience. Stories that will convince people to care and act are the ones that put a human face on the issue, or capture it in one iconic and memorable image. This is even more important and difficult for stories about climate science that need to visually capture the passage of time and make abstract models concrete. New media does allow journalists to produce compelling, multi-sensory stories. However, such engaging cross-platform reports are still too rare. Costs are high, teams are large – and both funding and expert journalists are in short supply.
“It is crucial that collaborations can occur on a larger scale, as happened when hundreds of journalists worked together on the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers.”
A sign of hope, however, is that global collaboration on climate change stories has increased.
In the aftermath of Haiyan, climate change brought Filipino journalists together. Instead of out-scooping each other with stories, journalists on the ground offered each other food, water and satellite phones. Unlike other beats where competition is cut-throat, climate change has become a common enemy for many journalists. More practitioners seek cross-border reporting projects or learning opportunities. Networking has become as important as skills training – as demonstrated by the success of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference and similar events, gathering thousands of journalists in one venue.
Some remarkable projects have emerged from those collaborations. The Guardian teamed up with non-government organization Global Witness to document the deaths of environmental activists who went against destructive industries. In the months leading to COP21, the Earth Journalism Network developed “A More Vulnerable World,” a compilation of 40 remarkable in-depth stories about the world’s most climate-vulnerable communities. This project resulted in the formation of more local organizations for environment journalists and increasing interest around the world in stories about climate change.
Technology supports this active collaboration. Besides facilitating discussion, new media allows journalists to produce compelling, multi-sensory stories across different platforms. The New York Times’ interactive story “Greenland is Melting Away,” published a month before the Paris talks, made use of drone footage, satellite imagery and maps to illustrate how scientists get data to test climate models. Last year, The Economist released “Ocean: The mystery corals,” a 360 degree virtual reality experience that shows how the coral reefs in Palau are able to survive warm and acidic water caused by climate change. But those are only two projects out of a handful each year, when many more would be needed.
It is crucial that such collaborations can occur on a larger scale, as happened when hundreds of journalists worked together on the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. Not only does the work require massive manpower, it is also essential that multiple voices and perspectives be heard.
A shift in focus should accompany this change in magnitude. Journalists have explored how climate change resulted in melting permafrost, rising seas, bleached corals, and extreme weather. Perhaps it is time for us to move the story forward and shift our collaborative efforts towards holding government and companies accountable.
For this, new questions need to be answered. What is the best funding source for climate change related projects? Are funds allotted for projects used properly? Are international efforts truly benefiting climate-vulnerable countries?
Questions will have to be more pointed. Targets will have to be bigger. Collaborations will have to be grander in scale. Stakes will be higher as journalists play a crucial role in guiding the world towards a sustainable future. The media needs to choose now if it will give climate change problems and solutions front page treatment – or whether we would rather wait for scenes of chaos and disaster to take over headlines across the globe.